In her novel “The Same River,” Lisa Reddick considers the ethical imperative for environmental action from the perspective of characters with unique personal situations that constrain their options for action. In the book, each character finds ways to fit the picture.
The story begins in the present, in the Pacific Northwest. This tale of environmental degradation unveils a spectrum of human behaviors shaped by local circumstances. These localized behaviors, good and bad, have global applicability.
While the novel is set in the present, the plot is influenced by characters living a century earlier that cross a time warp to shape the present.
The central figure is Jess, a researcher at the state fish and wildlife service. She has been involved in a study of the declining salmon population in the local river. Her work documents the deleterious environmental impact of a dam built on the river a century ago. Her job position provides her with knowledge of the internal workings of the dam which is locked in her password protected computer.
The dam’s purpose is flood control and to supply energy to the electrical power grid. However, the salmon population that nourished the local humans for 10 millennia is becoming unsustainable. Too few salmon are able to return upstream past the dam to reproduce and maintain a viable population. Jess’s studies conclude that something must be done about the dam.
Jess presents compelling results to her supervisor, but he equivocates, unwilling to face the pressure from elected officials whose campaign pockets benefit from the lavish donations of the power company officials.
The community also has an active environmentalist constituency that has been pressing for the dam’s removal. Jess has always been open and friendly with the local activists, one of whom has become her close and trusted friend.
Jess confides her problem with her boss to her friend. The friend violates her confidence and hacks Jess’s computer. She provides the confidential structural blueprints to a would-be eco-terrorist who plans to blow up the dam, threatening widespread destruction downstream, arguing such violence would serve a higher environmental purpose.
The bomb plot unravels. The eco-terrorist is caught before he can act. But, confidential information in the would-be bomber’s hands is traced to Jess, who loses her job. The friend who stole the data leaves town, her boyfriend moves out, and Jess’s personal life is in shambles.
Jess continues her environmental mission, surviving by managing a local environmental preservation organization. Her research becomes the basis of a judicial injunction petition that has moved to the federal circuit court of appeals.
The Northwest was once the home of a thriving native American community. Piah, a native character emerges from a hundred years in the past. Is she an incarnation of Jess’s sister who drowned in the river while a young girl?
In the past epoch Piah’s native community was devastated by diseases introduced by the “civilizing” efforts of the conquistadors. Piah lost her daughter to a fever-driven disease her people had never previously experienced. Consistent with her tribal customs she entrusted her daughter’s body to the river. Her community sends her alone into the wilderness for a period of mourning. In isolation, she lapses in and out of a dream state as she addresses her grief.
Meanwhile, in the present, Jess continues her environmental activism, leading visitors to the local wilderness on tours so that they may experience firsthand what is being lost. While on a solo backwoods exploration trip in preparation for a tour, Jess is attacked by a mountain lion. Left unconscious, she is found barely alive to face a slow convalescence. Wildlife experts are unable to explain why the attacking mountain lion left the mauling scene with Jess still alive. After all, Jess was about to be the mountain lion’s next meal.
Did someone or something intervene to scare the lion away?
Did Piah transcend time to save Jess so that she might continue her work in the present?
Only Piah and the mountain lion know for sure.
Jess’s boyfriend returns.
The case involving the dam is then decided by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
There may still be people outside Trump’s Oval Office who remain oblivious to the impending human-induced environmental catastrophe, despite compelling evidence from respected authority. For those who still can’t find a path appropriate for personal action, reading a novel might help. “The Same River” would be good start.
Robert M. Nelson is a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute. He serves on the executive board of the California Democratic Party. The views he represents here are his own.